Tennis legend Serena Williams has opened up about how she ‘saved her own life’ after welcoming her first child by caesarean section in 2017.
In a personal essay for Elle, Williams revealed how her quick-thinking and determination to be heard by doctors meant she escaped death just hours after her daughter, Olympia, was born.
“In 2010, I learned I had blood clots in my lungs — clots that, had they not been caught in time, could have killed me. Ever since then, I’ve lived in fear of them returning,” she wrote, pointing out that after giving birth she should have been put on a heparin drip – a drug that is used to prevent blood clots from forming in people who have certain medical conditions.
“I asked a nurse, ‘When do I start my heparin drip? Shouldn’t I be on that now?'” Williams wrote, adding that the nurse disregarded her concerns. “I felt it was important and kept pressing. All the while, I was in excruciating pain. I couldn’t move at all — not my legs, not my back, nothing,” she continued. “I began to cough. The nurses warned me that coughing might burst my [c-section] stitches, but I couldn’t help it. The coughs became racking, full-body ordeals. Every time I coughed, sharp pains shot through my wound
Shortly afterwards, Williams’ coughing burst her caesarean stitches and she was taken back into surgery to fix this. But, her condition quickly deteriorated, and doctors soon discovered a number of serious issues, including a blood clot in one of her arteries. Several surgeries later, the now 40-year-old was still pushing to be heard by the medical professionals around her.
“All I could think was, ‘I’m dying, I’m dying. Oh my God’,” she recalled. Talking to a nurse, Williams begged for a scan of her lungs: “[The nurse] said, ‘I think all this medicine is making you talk crazy.’ I said, ‘No, I’m telling you what I need: I need the scan immediately’.” After fighting “hard”, the tennis pro was taken for a scan, where a potentially fatal blood clot was found on her lungs leading her to go back into the operating theatre for life-saving surgery.
Looking back on the ordeal, five years on, Williams stresses how being dismissed by doctors almost cost her her life. “In the US, Black women are nearly three times more likely to die during or after childbirth than their white counterparts. Many of these deaths are considered by experts to be preventable,” she says. “Being heard and appropriately treated was the difference between life or death for me; I know those statistics would be different if the medical establishment listened to every Black woman’s experience.”